the KAL flight rose out of Incheon Airport the standard announcements
were given, first in Korean by a strong authoritative female voice with
a hint of menace in it, then in English by a strong authoritative
masculine voice that made us know that there were dire consequences of
failure to go by the rules. Then they were done in Vietnamese and the
voice was soft and feminine in that loveliest of languages and I
thought I would be delighted to follow any rules at all for the owner of that
voice. As her gentle suggestions came to an end I turned to the Korean
businessman across the aisle from me and said, “Hear that? That’s why I
love these people.” He looked puzzled and turned to his seatmate and
exchanged a few words. Then he turned back with a great grin and bobbed
his head, held up both thumbs, and said, “Yes, yes okay!” I was on my
way on the last leg of the flight to Tân Sơn Nhứt Airport in Sài Gòn
that I had last seen in 1970, thirty three years before.
Catholics reach a point in their lives when a pilgrimage is appropriate.
Most Americans go to Guadelupe or the European sites- Rome, Fatima,
Lourdes, some to Medjugorge, and, of course, the Holy land. My
conversion to Christianity came at the hands of a Vietnamese
priest I met by happenstance in Florida and I became a member of a
Vietnamese language parish so when I started to feel the call of
pilgrimage, the focus was the site of an Asian Apparition, i.e. La Vang,
a place formerly in the forest near what is now the city of Quảng Trị
up by the old DMZ.
calculated that I had enough money to buy the airline tickets
and to take some cash with me also and my priest was going in August
which was great because an unaided foreigner would have difficulty
getting to La Vang and I could travel on a “family visit” visa instead
of tourist. That would give me much more flexibility since I did not
have to report my movements or stay in sanctioned hotels.
stayed three days in Sài Gòn in the apartment of Trương, a nephew of my
priest and went sightseeing behind him and his sister Oanh on their
motorbikes. We went to mass in a large modern style church
in Thủ Đức. Many of Trương’s friends and acquaintances came to the apartment to meet the American.
prosperous friend of Trương who had a Suzuki automobile drove me to
Phan Thiết to catch a bus up to Cam Đức, a highway village in Khánh Hòa
where I stayed with the family of another relative of the priest. Cam
Đức is a Catholic village that has no hotels and no tourist trade. It
is a poor village but full of shops and stores and small businesses.
There are two large churches and several smaller ones and masses are
said several times daily and 5 times on Sunday to overflowing
congregations. The nearby beach is beautiful and butts up against a mountain on the north. The sand is light brown on the shore but there is a large area behind the beach itself that is full of great dunes of white sand like the Gulf Coast at home in Florida.
are several convents in the area and each has a small school. One
takes in autistic and Downsyn kids and others with physical handicaps. The sisters have no training and
can only offer love and care which is far better than they might have without the sisters because there are no other facilities to deal with them outside of the large cities.
it was getting close to time to go on to La Vang I learned that Hòa Yên Parish would rent a bus to take parishioners to La Vang each year when they
could afford it. This year there was no trip planned because there was not enough money. Many wanted to go but it did not seem feasible so I
assured them that I would hire the bus and driver to make the trip. I was told it would cost around $200US and that was within my budget, as I had not come as a tourist and couldn’t afford to be one, anyway. I was not in the country to go look at waterfalls or great palaces and museums in the first place, but to go to La Vang.
bus was hired with driver and shotgun (the driver’s assistant) and one of the local ladies
agreed to act as tour manager to handle all the tolls and gas
purchases. I was told to hold on to my money until the trip had
started, that no one pays up front. Actually I was never allowed to pay
for much of anything. I do not know where the financing came from but
that bus and crew were hired and we went.
set out in the evening as travel at night is easier with fewer
motorbikes on the road. On the whole trip as we traveled, the women on
the bus fed me different kinds of fruits and cooked food to
see just what the foreigner would eat. I would eat anything
they fed me. Normally I am not a dinner oriented person and eat only because
I am hungry. In Viet Nam I took pleasure in eating at all
meals and in between. The variety is tremendous. There are a hundred different tree fruits and many different greens and all of it is fresh because
refrigeration is still in Việt Nam’s future.
quickly became acquainted with most of my 34 fellow pilgrims as
everyone was curious about the American and everyone seemed to think
the trip only happened because I was there. One of the ladies is Hàn
Ny, a single mother for whatever reason, and her two daughters, Thuy
who was 8 and Trang who was 12 and a deaf mute. Hàn Ny asked me many questions
and was intent on finding out just what sort of man I am. Eventually
she suggested that I should adopt Trang and take her to America. I
regretted that I could not help them that way. The laws and my finances
make it impossibly difficult, but I could send some money each month
after I was back home.
and Khoa sat behind me and bought more fruit and different rice
preparations every time we stopped and kept handing me morsels so I
bought no food on the trip. Quyên was a ten year old elf child
that sat with her mother in the seat ahead of me. She told me she
wanted me to take her to America. All these children seem to think that
America is the Promised Land. Khai was the assistant to the driver. His
job seemed to consist of leaning out the door and yelling at the
motorbikes. He is also the mechanic who replaced the belts when they
came off halfway up Hải Vân Pass.
22, was sent along by his father as my watchdog to make sure that the
old foreigner would not get into trouble. He had long wanted to go to La Vang
and was glad of the opportunity. Phụng is an old soldier who fought in
the war for 9 years on the other side and converted before he left the
army in 76. Actually he was forced out because the army, in those days,
had no room for Christians.
first stop other than pit stops was at the cathedral in Huế. We stopped
there because the driver and Khai needed to sleep before continuing. We
pulled into the church grounds an hour before dusk (actually “dusk” is
not quite right,with the mountains so close int he west when the sun goes down the effect is
more like touching a light switch). The cathedral is surrounded
by a large paved and enclosed courtyard. There is a grotto at one end
of the grounds and a large travelers’ wash area at the other. Most of us
attended evening mass. A lady who seemed to be someone in authority
informed me that I could not stay on the property after dark but must
go to a hotel and register my presence with the police (not true
because I was not a “tourist”). Instead, Vinh and some of the
teenagers and I went walking in the city streets for a couple of hours. When
we got back the lady was gone. We had until 2 AM to get some sleep and the whole party stretched out on the stone porch of the cathedral until 0200 hours when the bus driver was ready to go on.
sunrise we came to Hội An, a tourist city at the base of Marble
Mountain, from whose rock are cut lions and dragons and Buddhist and
Christian saints and nudes and Pietas.
bus stopped among all the tourist buses and we went to look around.
There was an “American” restaurant there where one could actually buy
fried egg sandwiches and hamburgers. In this cornucopia
of palatal delights who on earth could want to eat a hamburger? A German
tour group was crowded into the Restaurant and as we went by a tall
blond fellow stepped out in front of me and said in my face, “You are
American, n’est ce pas?” I made a long reply in Vietnamese, put my
fingertips together and bowed Chinese style and suggested to those with
me that we should go find some real food.
and a couple of the ladies and some of the children and I went into the
town and found a small eatery where we got bowls of phở (truly
delightful noodle soup). While we were eating with our chopsticks at
the little molded plastic tables the German group walked by. One
grabbed the arm of the fellow who had accosted me and pointed at me .
The accoster looked hard and said something to his friend in their own
language that sounded like it must have meant, “well, you just never
know…” and he shrugged his shoulders.
of our group eventually found the street that led to Trà Kiệu,
site of another Apparition in 1885. It is at the top of a lump that rises
steeply out of flat rice land 150 meters or so. There is a stone
stairway up the side of the hill that is a real workout and there is a
large chapel at the top. I stayed there a while and prayed.
in the day we stopped at Phong Nha for some tourist type diversion
north of the Bến Hải River. the old DMZ. Phong Nha is a town in a
district of dragon tooth mountains, not very large, really, but they
stick up out of the plain like, well, dragons’ teeth.
parked in the very large parking area along with a half a dozen
arriving tourist buses and most of the riders elected to take the tour
up the mountain to see the famous waterfalls and the disappearing river that flows through a mountain. All the tourists in the
other buses did the same or went down to the river to hire the sampans
and barges for cruises. Vinh wanted to stay in the parking area and I
stayed also. When there was no one left but the vendors, I went
over and bought a bottle of water from Sương. a middle aged woman
selling sweets and sodas and film, and she asked me how it is that I knew
the language. We talked for a while and a little boy came over to see
what we were doing and then an old man. Pretty soon all the vendors
were there and several brought over some little plastic tables and chairs and teapots and little burners and Vinh came over. We all sat in
the shade of their parasols and had tea and talked. One old gentleman said that over the
years he had had seen many Americans but had never actually talked to
could have taken the tour and seen the fabulous waterfalls and I would
have pictures when I got home to show off to my relatives. But I can buy
pictures or look at them on the INET or in National Geographic but I
cannot sit around with good people and talk over tea and sweets in any
arrived in Quảng Trị a little before nightfall and the driver had to
stop and ask the local folks for directions. The roads are actually
quite well marked in Việt Nam except that there are no signs for La
Vang. It is an embarrassment for the officially atheist government that the place draws
many thousands of pilgrims every August and a smaller stream all
finally came to the street that ended at the edge of the
grounds and parked the bus in a farmer’s yard. It was Wednesday afternoon
and the vigil mass was Thursday evening with the main celebration
Friday morning. Vinh suggested I immediately go to the nearest
farmhouse and rent a sleeping spot before the next hundred thousand
people arrived and took all the available space. I talked to the
farmer’s wife and she asked for 20,000d for the two
nights. The house had a large concrete porch and a sizable paved area
that would, in America, be a carport, but here was a threshing and
drying floor. The cistern and wash area were behind the house and there
were actual privies on the other side. I bought space on the porch for
my hammock. I could have slept in the house on the floor but
I preferred to be outside. I did not have any note smaller than
100,000d and the lady professed to have no change so I gave her the
100,000d. Then Vinh asked me to get him a space, too, as he had run out
of funds. I paid another 100,000 for Vinh. As a result we were included in the family meals. It was a very well spent $13.
our lodging was seen to I went on to evening mass on the grounds. The
forecourt appears to be a quarter of a mile long and maybe a hundred
yards wide. At the other end is a raised dais covered by very large
parasols where the mass is said. Surrounding are many more acres of
campground and vendors’ stalls and the monastery. Much of the camping
area is covered by temporary or permanent tin roofing and tarps and it
is well appointed as things go in this part of the world. There are no
facilities for bathing and no privies. People just make use of the
woods that border the grounds. There is plenty of water as the area has
several springs that arose in 1798 in conjunction with the apparitions
and it is quite safe to drink. There were several thousand people at
the mass and afterward I went among the shops and stalls and bought a
beautiful rosary and a statue of Our lady of La Vang.
were beggars about, not in overwhelming numbers but a definite presence,
some healthy looking children holding up cans and some amputees. The amputees are a problem in the country because there are
no facilities to take care of them and they cannot work and can only
beg. I resolved to leave money with them before I left.
night and through the next day people were streaming in, on buses, on
motorbikes, a few cars, or just walking, many thousands of them. Our
group prayed together for much of the day until time for the Vigil
mass. The forecourt was crowded. I don’t know how many people were
there but probably not the million plus that attended in 2000 and for
the 1998 bicentennial celebrations. This is not a special year. Mass was
just the vigil mass of the Assumption with no elaboration but there
were many priests concelebrating and more nuns on the side of the dais
or among the congregation than I would have suspected there were in the
whole country. Mass was announced by the sounding of a huge drum in an
accelerating rhythm until the opening hymn.
mass I went back to the farmhouse for dinner and more prayer. The crowd
started to thin as people streamed out. For many the vigil mass was
sufficient and it does fulfill the obligation and they left. At the same time many more were arriving for the regular mass in
the morning. The two way traffic in the narrow lane looked as if it
must get locked up in immovability but everything just kept flowing
smoothly the same way the impossibly anarchic traffic flows smoothly in
the streets of the cities.
it got more and more crowded and some less respectable people began to
drift in, the women in the group rearranged the sleeping plan. Khai and
the driver and I were moved to the edges of the porch to act as a sort
of barrier for the children and old folks who were assigned to the
middle of the porch. The young men were to sleep on the threshing pad.
I asked Phương, our “manager” why I was deemed more efficacious as
protection for the children than the younger more muscular fellows. She
said that the sort of people who might be a threat to the children
tended to believe that all American men carried guns. Score one for the
mass in the morning the forecourt was packed and there were thousands
more outside the low wall. There were more than a hundred priests. I
did not know it then but my own priest from back home was up there, also. I knew he would be in attendance but I thought he was somewhere
in the crowd like me.
mass there was a procession that moved the length of the forecourt then
doubled back on the outside to proceed around the back by the bombed out 1923 church and ended at the grotto. The procession was as long as
the route traversed with many groups represented. Some groups of women
wore áo dài and baseball caps. A totally unexpected group of Mọi
(mountain people) walked in the procession and many thousands of others. It ended with a blessing and immediately the crowd began to
went looking for the amputees and gave each 100,000d, about $6.30. It
was enough to feed one for several weeks and more would have
invited robbery of the recipient. I came upon one beggar who was not an
amputee but who was obviously crippled. His hair was in patches on his
head and was brown. His face was western in shape and only his eyes
looked Vietnamese and they were light colored. I was stopped by the
and choked up. Here was one of our own children of the war. The French,
at least, took their children out with them when they decamped. They
gathered up the half caste orphans and urchins and their mothers and
took them to France where they had a future. We left our children to beg in the villages and be shunned by the populace. I gave him more
money than I had intended and it did not make me feel any better at all.
the trip home to Khánh Hòa we stopped only once, at the market in Huế
so that the women could buy from the more varied and cheaper produce
available there. The luggage compartment under the bus was filled with
greens and fruit.
in Khánh Hòa the bus emptied and the pilgrims dispersed. The 5 days of
the journey had seemed to me more like a month. At my age time zips by
and weeks are gone in a flash and I felt as if God had given me back some time and I gave thanks for that. After having been to La Vang I
did not need anything more. It was two more weeks before my flight home
and I settled down to reflect in the village and to walk and to talk.
my remaining time my new friends made sure I saw everything there was
to see in Khánh Hoà, a Buddhist wedding and a Catholic one, a Buddhist
temple where I met a monk who had been a Catholic in his youth. When
told him about my own youthful immersion in Buddhism and subsequent
conversion to Catholicism he said that it was appropriate for us to meet. He oversees the education of 30 orphans for whom the temple is
home and family. Those children, all age 5-9, are the best behaved and
most studious children I have ever seen.
Phương and her brother Khanh took me to Nha Trang to see the Po Nagar
temples. A teenage cousin who had never been outside of the village
went with us. On the hilltop Loàn borrowed my camera to take pictures in
the cave like sanctuaries of the 1000 year old structures. Then she told
me to come with her because she was afraid of going into the dark
rooms. I waited for her outside of one of them and a young man standing
nearby spoke to his companion- he said, “Look at the old foreigner with
his gái yêu! -that is a stronger term than the English equivalent
“girl friend.” Without thinking I grabbed his arm and pressed my
fingertips into his wrist and said, “Don’t talk ugly
about my daughter. Her mother is nearby and will hear.” He looked
surprised, folded his arms and did chào (bowed with his arms folded), apologized, and the
two fellows left as Loàn came out of the temple chamber. When we
rejoined the others Loàn told them that her “father” had chastised some
men who were talking ugly. I had not thought she had heard it.
my time was up and I took the bus to Sài Gòn. At the airport the
customs officer noted that I had overstayed my visa and said I would have to speak to a higher authority. I said in Vietnamese that I would
have stayed longer but my money was gone and I had to be on the 0100
flight. He turned to another agent who was leaning on the outside of
the kiosk and who seemed to be his supervisor and said that the American
talked well and seemed to be a friend. The other officer just nodded.
My agent turned and handed me back my passport, smiled and said
“hết rồi!”( all done) and said in English Please return another time. I
will go back again. Perhaps I will retire to a village in Khánh Hòa.
In the Year of Our Lord 2003